Department resisted releasing details of abuser’s Civil Defence role

Legal advice suggested declining to comment on abuse case, internal emails show

The Department of Defence resisted disclosing details of a convicted child abuser’s previous six-year involvement with the Civil Defence due to data protection concerns, internal emails show.

The perpetrator, who had used his connections as an Order of Malta volunteer to sexually abuse two 15-year-old boys, had also previously volunteered in the Civil Defence. Scott Browne, from Co Kildare, was jailed for 9½ years in 2020 over the sexual abuse of the boys, who were molested in separate incidents in 2018.

Another former Order of Malta volunteer, Jordan Murphy, from Co Kildare, was jailed for 5½ years in May after pleading guilty to aiding and abetting Browne.

Following the conclusion of the criminal case earlier this year, the order opened an internal investigation into the matter and wider child-protection standards in its ambulance corps.

The Department of Defence, which oversees the Civil Defence, refused to comment on media queries about Browne’s prior involvement with the voluntary emergency response agency. At the time a spokeswoman said the department “is precluded from commenting about current or former members of Civil Defence”.

In a separate response, the Kildare Civil Defence branch said Browne had been a volunteer with it “for a short period”. A local officer said: “Our records were reviewed in light of the case that was before the courts and nothing of relevance was found.”

Internal department emails seen by The Irish Times show Browne was a Civil Defence volunteer for several years, becoming a member in mid-2008 and noted as leaving in late 2014.

The internal emails discussed how to respond to media queries about his past involvement with the agency.

Emer Dalton, head of the department’s Civil Defence branch, told colleagues that an in-house legal adviser had said officials should not comment on any individuals due to data-protection regulations.

“I would not be inclined to mention any individual Civil Defence officer or unit in any statement,” she said.

The emails stated that no complaints had been received about the man during his time volunteering with the agency.

The emails show Jacqui McCrum, department secretary general, was briefed on the planned response to press queries.

The department’s response outlined that all Civil Defence volunteers are required to be Garda vetted and to complete child-protection awareness training. Volunteers were recruited and trained by each local authority, with the department overseeing national policy and providing support, the statement said.

The fallout of the child sex abuse case has caused significant turmoil in the Order of Malta. A delegate from the headquarters of the international religious order in Rome has recently been appointed to oversee the running of the Irish organisation.

Background: Organisations grappled with how to publicly respond to abuse case

In the weeks before the conclusion of a court case where a second of two former Order of Malta volunteers was sentenced over the sexual abuse of two 15-year-old boys in 2018, the organisation grappled over how it should respond publicly.

The main perpetrator, Scott Browne from Co Kildare, was jailed for 9½ years in 2020 for sexually abusing two teenagers in separate incidents in separate incidents where they were molested after being rendered unconscious by a powerful pain-relief drug he stole from the order.

Jordan Murphy, another former volunteer from Co Kildare, was jailed for 5½ years at the start of May after pleading guilty to aiding and abetting Browne.

In both instances the teenagers were befriended by Browne and Murphy and picked up by the pair in a car. The boys were encouraged to inhale the pain relief drug, Penthrox, which knocked them out. In one case Browne wore his Order of Malta uniform when abusing a boy, with Murphy recording him, using a mobile phone.

There was significant debate within the top ranks of the order earlier this year about whether it should issue a statement at the end of the second court case. Some, sources said, felt any public statement would have to be cleared by the headquarters of the religious order in Rome.

In the end, a letter was sent to members about the “very distressing” court cases involving the former volunteers rather than the order issuing a public statement.

The letter from Richard Duc de Stacpoole, the organisation’s president, said there would be an internal investigation into the cases and wider child-protection standards. The scope of that inquiry has broadened to focus on how the order handled previous complaints made about Browne allegedly sexually assaulting two young men in the ambulance corps, which were reported prior to him abusing the teenagers.

However, the order was not the only organisation debating how it should respond to the fallout from the abuse case.

For several years Browne volunteered with the Civil Defence, the State’s voluntary emergency response agency overseen by the Department of Defence.

Media queries about his involvement with the State agency were stonewalled. The department took the stance that it was “precluded from commenting about current or former members of Civil Defence”. Internal department emails seen by The Irish Times show Browne was a Civil Defence as a volunteer for some six years up to late 2014.

Internal department discussions noted that no complaints had been made about him during his time with the Civil Defence. Despite this, emails show that the department’s in-house legal adviser said officials should avoid commenting on any individuals due to data-protection regulations.

The department’s response to media queries outlined that all Civil Defence volunteers are required to be Garda vetted and complete child-protection training. It made no comment on the case itself or Browne’s prior involvement as a volunteer.

William McLoughlin, a barrister specialising in data protection, said he agreed with the position taken by the department. He said the release of information about the former volunteer would be a “difficult position to reason” legally.

He said the department would have to show it had a “legitimate interest” in needing to disclose the information that outweighed the individual’s data-protection rights. The order would be on surer footing when issuing a statement as it had a right to defend itself, given his past involvement with the organisation was referenced during the court case, he said.

Mr McLoughlin added that the issue was a legal “grey area”, as exactly when an organisation could claim it had a legitimate reason to release information about individuals had not been tested in court.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times